Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer

A Spectral Treat

COLORADO IS FAR more frequently a sunny place than a foggy one, offering three-hundred sunny days a year – a bright gift from the climate gods that I would have appreciated while growing up in Britain! But it’s funny; one can have too much of a good thing. Too much sun often means too little moisture. Too much sun means a landscape parched by mid-summer with brittle-yellow vegetation for three-quarters of the year. And too much sun also means too few clouds… and too few chances to climb above them (which is one of my favourite things to do). Where I live, standing on a summit above a sea of clouds is a rare treat.

But last Friday, when I woke early and peered outside, I saw that rare thing: a dull smothering of fog, and although nearby neighbours were probably considering it a dreary clag for me it meant that treasured conditions were currently occurring only a few hundred feet above. What I wanted to do was dash straight outside, race into the swirling moisture, stride up the flat-topped mountain above my house, then watch sunrise from above the clouds. But I couldn’t. It was a weekday and I had teenagers to deliver to school. It didn’t matter that low-level inversions only occur here once or twice a year. Family duties always come first.

Happily, the fog persisted beyond sunrise… then beyond the school drop off. By 8:30, with my teenagers delivered to their institutions of learning, and with my work plans pushed aside, I’d driven halfway up Mount Zion, had parked, and had post-holed through knee deep snow to the mountain’s rocky summit. And… the view that greeted me didn’t disappoint.

above the clouds golden mount zion

I might have missed the sunrise, but I hadn’t missed the opportunity to stand alone on an island peak, feeling detached from the hidden human world. I stood staring a long while, watching the fog drifting and shifting, coming and going, rising and falling.

above the clouds golden mount galbraith

In truth, rare as cloud inversions are, I’ve been fortunate to have experienced a great many of them over the years in a great many places, from Colorado’s high country to other distant ranges. And yet, despite the number of ‘above the fog’ moments I’ve had, each new one still feels like the first. Being above the clouds feels almost miraculous, as though one has achieved the impossible and found a way to fly. It feels as though the laws of nature have been reversed – that the sky which is normally overhead is now located far below. And it feels as though one is somehow cheating – ‘getting away’ with something that others are missing. Down below, the residents of my home town were going about their morning activities in murky dampness, their views limited by the fog. But up here? The day was bright and the horizons stretched away unlimited.

above the clouds golden lakewood green mountain

To the south, the outlying dome of Green Mountain rose above the inversion. No doubt, there were a few early-rising walkers, bikers and runners up there, and no doubt they were congratulating themselves on heading into the murk and breaking free into sunshine. I hoped they were enjoying the same emotions that I was!

above the clouds golden mount galbraith

To the north, the Front Range foothills fell into the fog, from the foreground ridge of Mount Galbraith to the Flatirons above Boulder and then to hills beyond.

cloud sea above golden mount zion

Although I could hear sounds from the city below I couldn’t see the buildings, the roads, the busyness. Detachment slowly grew, along with an elevating feeling of peace.

above the clouds golden mount zion

I felt I could easily stay where I was all day! To hell with what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing…

Far below, I noticed a hint of colour in the clouds – a hint of a phenomenon even rarer than cloud seas: a Brocken spectre (specter, in American English), an atmospheric occurrence that I’ve chased many times but have only experienced a few. The rainbow hues of it shone subtly on the fog’s surface, but I was too far above the clouds on Zion’s summit for the full effect to take place.

above the clouds golden mount zion

I knew that if I dashed back down the ridge to the little spur directly above the clouds I might strike Brocken spectre gold… but the clouds were already beginning to disperse, and I had no doubt about my luck. Experience of similar moments told me that by the time I’d make it down there there’d be no clouds left, and I’d also lose the fabulous views I had up here. Well, that’s how it had gone many times before. Stop chasing the next dream, I thought, and lose what you already have. Remain in the moment! Enjoy what you have! And so I stayed on the summit.

above the clouds golden mount zion

And there certainly were compensations to staying high!

 above the clouds golden north table mountain

The mountain above my home, North Table Mountain, kept coming and going as the fog gently shifted, its small volcanic peak (and nearby radio tower) appearing and disappearing every few moments.

above the clouds golden lakewood green mountain

Waves of fog were now rising over Green Mountain, surging forward like a vapory tide rolling in…

 above the clouds golden lookout mountain

To the south, the slopes of Lookout Mountain plunged into the fog.

above the clouds golden mount zion summit mount galbraith
Yes, it was a hard place to leave… and yet the slight possibility of seeing a Brocken spectre remained. It nagged at me. Even though the clouds below were still thinning maybe it wasn’t too late after all?

Deciding to go for it I dashed downward, flying through deep snow. Of course, the moment I left the summit the fog began shifting even more, and by the time I reached the perch I’d aimed for fog smothered it. Ah well, I thought. Just typical!

But at least the fog hadn’t entirely vanished. There was till hope. Still a chance. So I sat and chilled (literally), and waited, waited, waited… and as the minutes passed there were hints again, a suggestion of sunlight through the fog, a pastel burst of colour, which vanished, then returned, with more hints, until…

above the clouds brocken spectre golden mount zion

Finally it happened: a Brocken spectre appeared below, floating upon the rolling fog, a spectral treat even rarer than the inversion.

The phenomenon is named after a mountain in Germany – Brocken – the highest peak in the Harz Mountains. I’d visited it midway through my 7,000-mile walk across Europe, and had written about it On Sacred Ground, the second book about that journey:

“Among mountaineers, the Brocken is famous for giving its name to a rare atmospheric phenomenon, the Brocken spectre. A Brocken spectre occurs when an observer’s shadow is cast from above onto clouds or mist. The shadow can look enormous, and a bright rainbow halo often appears around the shadow’s head. To some, the sight can seem threatening, even supernatural; legend tells that a climber on the Brocken panicked and plummeted to his death after seeing a giant ghostly figure. The phenomenon was reportedly named by Johann Silberschlag, a German pastor and scientist who witnessed it in 1780. Also called a Brocken bow, or a glory by meteorologists, it can only be seen when specific atmospheric conditions are met—conditions that frequently occur on the Brocken. I’d been fortunate to see Brocken spectres several times in other places, and I was intrigued by the possibility of witnessing one here.”

As it happened, I didn’t see one on the Brocken. (What I saw is a whole other story!) But I was seeing one here… and I celebrated the sight.

shifting clouds golden mount zion

The Brocken spectre remained for half a minute, then slowly faded as the clouds beneath my perch thinned and rolled away. Would they return? It seemed possible.

I sat to wait, watching the fog roll back and forth, first into the canyon to my west, then flowing from the east over the shoulder of Zion above me, poring downward like steam spilling from a cauldron. The cloud drama was breathtaking, even without the Brocken spectre.

shifting clouds golden mount zion

Sunlight then fog then sunlight came and went, came and went. Would I see the Brocken spectre again?

brocken spectre

I seemed I would! And this time, when it reappeared, the shadow’s definition grew cleaner and sharper, and the rainbow colours brighter and brighter.

brocken spectre golden mount zion

I waved. The spectre waved back.

brocken spectre golden mount zion

My patience had been rewarded. My choices, rewarded. Conditions had all fallen into place, and it became arguably the brightest, clearest and longest-lasting Brocken spectre I’ve been lucky enough to see. I took a series of photos, then put the camera away. I stood and stared for long minutes, treasuring a moment that was brief in the scheme of things but seemed to stretch far, far longer. When nature delivers its miracles time always seems to slow.

And this was a miracle, even though science can easily explain it. It was a miracle for its beauty – a mere subjective assessment perhaps, but real because I was experiencing it. And it was a miracle for the emotional effect it had. The sight before me was a rare ‘ordinary’ miracle. It was a simple combination of moisture, shadow and sunlight, ordinary things, but it was also the ordinary transformed into the extraordinary, a gift… a prompter of delight and awe.

And meanwhile, down below, the world remained gray and foggy. Which was something to consider, something to remember.

Whenever the world seems gloomy, who knows what brightness shines nearby!

brocken specter golden mount zion

Scroll to Top